Mental Monday: The British Is Coming! The British Is Coming!
No, this article is not about Paul Revere, how many lanterns were hung in the Old North Church, Dawes and Prescott, a mare, or even Deacon John Larkin. (But if you want to see how those were an important part of 20th-century history, watch Robert Redford’s excellent film Quiz Show, a retelling of the ’50s-era scandal that rocked Congress and the television industry. Just watched it again a few nights ago. Terrific screenplay and acting.)
That’s right. Instead, I’m here to talk about collective nouns (or “group nouns”) and how they drive people crazy, even when the usage rules are well known. But you’ll be breathing easier when you’ve finished here because this is going to be a “fuggedaboutit” set of rules: Don’t worry which way you go — just be consistent. Let me explain.
We all know that “The British is coming!” sounds incorrect because the subject and verb don’t agree. And we all know what Paul Revere really said: “The British are coming!” But what if his shouted warning had mentioned the British Army, rather than just “the British”? Should he have said: “The British Army IS coming!”? Or: “The British Army ARE coming!”? You’re thinking “is.” (I proofread and have the ability to read minds.)
But wait — aren’t “the British” and “the British Army” the same thing in this instance? Yes! So why the plural verb for one and singular for the other? Here’s where the craziness enters: They’re both correct. What?
“Army” is just one of many collective nouns in English, and they can cause subject-verb confusion. Here are a few more: committee, team, family, audience, class, jury. It boils down to this: Are you referring to the group as a whole unit? Or as individual members within the group? The jury has been asked to leave the courtroom. As a unit, the jury gets up and leaves. No one cares about them as individuals here. Their job is to deliberate and come up with a verdict as one unit of people. However: The jury come from many different cities throughout the Los Angeles area. The individual members come from different cities — the sentence isn’t saying that the jury as a unit has gone from city to city on its way to the courthouse.
So here’s a cheat — think “members of the” for the second example: The (members of the) jury come from many different cities throughout the Los Angeles area.
And that would be my recommendation for you: When you get stuck on this type of sentence construction, clarify what you mean. Add in “members of the” if that helps.
As for consistency, allow me to bring up a complaint from a coworker of mine. Let’s call him “Craig.” Craig is bothered by the editorial style Rolling Stone magazine uses when referring to bands — as plural, even when the band name is singular, as in “Oasis are touring.” He sees bands as a singular unit, rather than as the individuals who make up the band. Rolling Stone has chosen a consistent style of subject-verb agreement, whether the Moody Blues are coming to town (they are, in May!) or Oasis are touring. Neither structure is incorrect. The important thing here is the editor’s consistency.
Let’s try one more: The Spurs are playing the Lakers. Okay. How about: The Heat are playing the Lakers. That works for me. In that sentence, “Heat” is a renaming of “team,” a collective noun, as in The (members of the) Heat are playing the Lakers.
In summation, (members of the) jury: You are instructed to decide whether your collective noun is being used in a singular or plural way (unit vs. individuals). You are also instructed to be consistent in your usage of singular or plural verbs when collective nouns are present. And you are instructed to watch Quiz Show, starring Ralph Fiennes, because it’s a really smart movie and you’ll understand my Paul Revere references.
The jury (as a unit) is dismissed.
Karen A. Hernandez, Editorial Manager at Wunderman L.A. WundermanLA.com
On Twitter: @Goofreader and @WundermanLA